Arab states lag behind in ‘green’ campuses

The Arab world has been late to join the ‘green’ universities movement, which strives for lower emissions and less water consumption. Only 12 out of about 500 universities implement environmentally friendly policies and programmes to reduce their carbon emissions and help to combat global climate change.

This is the conclusion of the recent UI GreenMetric World University Ranking which reflects the efforts made by 301 universities located in 49 countries in US, Europe, Asia and Africa to become sustainable.

The universities ranking criteria include baseline information such as the size of the university, spatially and in terms of population, the campus location and the amount of green space; and also information on energy use, transport, water use and recycling and waste treatment along with efforts being made by the institution towards establishing green policies and management and education programmes.

Arab green campuses

While Lebanon has only one university in the ranking with the American University of Beirut at number 197, two universities in Palestine and three universities in Jordan were ranked, making Jordan top of the Arab world in establishing green universities.

Palestine's universities include the Islamic university of Gaza at 87 and An-Najah National University at 94. Jordan's universities include the Jordan University of Science and Technology (113), University of Petra (218), and University of Jordan (279).

In North African countries, only three universities were ranked, including the American University in Cairo at 101, and the Kafrelsheikh University in Egypt (130), along with Cadi Ayyad University in Morocco (284).

Only two Arab Gulf States-based universities, in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, were included in the green university rankings: King Abdulaziz University (165) and the UAE University (181). This is despite recent studies indicating that the low-lying gulf states could be especially vulnerable to climate change as a result of rising sea levels. These could rise by more than a metre by the end of the century and this could lead to the submerging of thousands of kilometres of the gulf coastline.

"The UI GreenMetric is a good initiative, but many of the universities doing excellent work in this area are not included in its ranking. It should not be considered a definitive guide," said Ann Kildahl, sustainability manager at the University of Hong Kong. "It may be that some of the Gulf state universities are making progress, but their work is not yet well known outside the region."

Kildahl mentioned the 26-building campus of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, opened in 2009, that recycles all its wastewater, uses 27% less energy than a typical campus and was built with 20% recycled content.

Also, UAE is setting up Masdar City which is the world’s first large-scale carbon-neutral development. This US$18 billion investment in clean technology is creating a new city in the heart of the Middle East’s oil country that boasts a research university and acts as incubator for newly emerging green collar industries.

Turning universities green

Arab universities are lagging behind in adopting a green pathway in their universities because there may be a regional trend toward consumerism, says Melissa Goodall, assistant director in the Office of Sustainability at Yale University in the United States.

“Demand for new products has implications for resource extraction, the impacts of manufacturing and transportation of goods, and disposal," Goodall said.

A 2013 report by the Arab Forum for Environment and Development, or AFED, stated that oil and gas revenues accounted for 36% of the total Arab GDP. But Goodall said the implication of this was probably two-fold: “First, the countries of that area have a vested interest in continued consumption of and demand for fossil fuels; second, fossil fuel-based energy may be more economically viable than renewable energy alternatives."

She said that to encourage Arab universities to become green campuses it would be helpful to have support from the institution leaders. If the head of a university announced a commitment to sustainability – or a sustainability policy – students and staff members were more likely to take it seriously.

Goodall added: "After that, responsibilities and accountability should be clear – if the university is going to reduce its energy use, how will it do so, and whose job is it to ensure that it happens? Ideally, there is one office or person on a campus that takes on this responsibility and ultimately will have a set of university-level sustainability goals that are measurable and time-bound."

As for what should be done on Arab campuses, she said establishing the local and regional contexts for sustainability was imperative. Many Arab nations were currently addressing challenges in terms of access to water and food security – both of which were likely to worsen with climate change. In addition, much of the oil and gas extracted in Arab countries was exported. Yet, according to AFED, 35 million Arab people did not have access to modern energy services.

"Sustainability efforts on Arab campuses should reflect these imperatives in two ways: first, in commitments to strive for operational efficiencies; second, as priority areas for academic exploration so that local institutions can inform robust regional solutions," Goodall said.

Mohamed Abdelraouf, a research fellow in the environmental research programme at the Gulf Research Center in Saudi Arabia, said Arab universities should have their own environmental policies, recycling programmes and environmental education.

"However, as a start, there could be a policy mix of tools – incentives and regulations – from governments that could include a mandatory request that each university have their own environmental and social safeguards’ policy, a policy that defines minimum requirements of their activities, including operational and educational ones.”

Sustainable universities leading green economy

Goodall said the green economy included several key concepts that should be fundamental to the operations and teaching at any higher education institution: equity between peoples and between generations, and committing to policies and practices that balanced people, planet, prosperity and culture.

"Beyond this, though, universities have a remarkable and unique role to play. They have the capacity to test and innovate in ways that cities and businesses cannot. Cities are bound by their budgets and their need to provide consistent and reliable infrastructure to their residents. Everything that a business does must be focused on profits.

"The mission of a university, however, is to teach tomorrow’s leaders. This requires constantly refreshing ideologies and exploring new solutions to complex problems," she said.

Abdelraouf said Arab ‘green universities’ could also play an important role in promoting green industry and green economy as they represented the tools to accompany this. The tools could range from laws, incentives to education and awareness.

“For example, curricula and research of green universities must aim at subjects related to the green economy to provide the work market with the qualified graduates that fit green jobs,” he said. "If the universities have the above policy and role, the private sector will automatically turn to them for green technology and research."

The way forward

To promote regional exchange of expertise and best practice, Arab science and technology expert Magdi Tawfik Abdelhamid called for the creation of an Arab network for green universities including scientists, technologists, lecturers and policy-makers, as well as universities, technology institutions and centres with green programmes.

"The proposed network will support higher education institutions in the exchange of information, ideas and best practices for achieving sustainable campus operations and integrating sustainability in research and teaching," Abdelhamid said.

It should also focus on curriculum innovations, local carbon campuses and targeted training programmes. The network should set up a database for international best practice in campus sustainability and could include, for example, the February 2014 report on the International Sustainable Campus Network website on best practices in campus sustainability, which provides an overview of current sustainability initiatives by leading universities and colleges.

A virtual library for green university studies should also be established that included important information for policy makers and higher education experts such as the 2013 UN Environment Programme report Greening Universities Toolkit: Transforming universities into green and sustainable campuses.

“Developing joint research projects in green technology with regional and international science institutions and organisations is also a must in order to advance scientific progress and enhance knowledge and technology transfer,” Abdelhamid said.